5 Career Lessons I Learned From Rihanna's Hairstylist, Ursula Stephen

A beauty expert who also gives life advice is a double win.
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A beauty expert who also gives life advice is a double win.

Ursula Stephen wears a number of hats: celebrity hairstylist (you may have heard of her biggest client, Rihanna; she's also worked with Kerry Washington, Rita Ora and Paula Patton), brand ambassador for Motions, and business owner, to name just a few. 

I had the chance to sit down and chat with her, and learned that we have more in common than I thought. Of course, I’m not changing celebrities' lives with my magic hands, but we share similar childhood experiences as it relates to our career paths. 

Ursula went to a high school that allowed her to do hair, which increased her chances of becoming great at what she does; but none of her teachers, counselors, etc., told her that becoming a celebrity hairstylist meant she would be making groundbreaking looks on a major pop star like Rihanna. 

My story is only slightly different. I also went to a high school that allowed me to study a craft that would lead into a career; in this case, journalism. But the only jobs in the field that were deemed acceptable were those working in politics, hard news, sports, and so on--not beauty. (My grandfather is still upset that I decided to write about things women love opposed to working at the White House.)

My dream to work in fashion and beauty has come true, and I am happy to have pushed myself to be here. But after talking to Ursula about her journey, I learned a few life lessons that helped me rethink the way I previously viewed my career choices. 

Ursula at her salon in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Ursula at her salon in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Here are five of Ursula's career tips:

1. Always say YES, because you never know where it’ll take you.

"Every step that I’ve made brought me closer to celebrities. I used to work at a salon, and one of the girls that used to work there got me into freelancing. She was a makeup artist, so she pulled me in on shoots, which opened my eyes to a world apart from being behind the chair. I would hang out with her and do her hair, and she knew a lot of people in the industry, so I started doing their hair and my name just kind of traveled in that way. 

"Soon it was just one thing after the other, and I just started saying yes to everything. I can kind of give credit to being a little naïve because you’re so naïve when you’re just starting out, so you say yes to everything."

2. If you want to pursue a career in any creative industry, heed these three key tips.

• "Be ready because it’s really a sacrifice. You have to sacrifice a lot of your life and time. It’s like a gift and a curse to be a great hair stylist because everyone is grabbing you in different directions."

• "Save your money because the business is so flaky. You can be hot one minute and not that next. Remember, save your money because you will be around longer than some of these artists."

• "Concentrate on your craft opposed to only thinking about the celebrity. You’re working with them because you’re at the top of your game, so you can’t go in feeling like you’re a peasant to them. Be very assertive and confident in yourself and in what you do."

3. Everything ain’t for everybody.

"When I was in high school, I worked in a salon and we changed our hair what seemed like every two days. This hairstyle came out that was slicked down with just a bang that was curled, and I wanted it. And I got it! And when I looked into the mirror, I almost cried. I washed it out literally the next day. The lesson I learned is that just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean it’ll work for you."

4. You can succeed and be happy in whatever you love to do.

"If I weren’t a hairstylist, I would be something where I can help people; maybe a social worker, because I really like to help young kids. I just feel connected with that because I was that young girl who really didn’t know what I wanted to do and was not like everybody else. 

"When I decided to do hair, it was never looked at as being a career... I think it’s a positive thing, because when I was growing up, the normal jobs were doctors and lawyers. Now, people are realizing you can actually make a living doing something you really love, like hair, like makeup, like photography, like designing tour sets.  

"I think the world is changing, and new career opportunities are opening up for young people, so I would like to be the person that says, 'Don’t worry about being like everyone else because there are other ways to make money and be happy.'"

5. In the end, it’s all worth it. ALL of it.

"One of the most challenging times of my career was when I was transitioning from being behind the chair [in a salon] to a freelance artist. It was challenging because when you work in a salon, you work, you get cash, and it’s easy. You don’t have to worry about waiting for money. 

"When you freelance, you have to wait 30 to 60 days and you might not even see that check, so you kind of feel like you’re broke. It was really tough and because I was out [of the salon] so much, my salon clientele started scattering. 

"I really had to think if I wanted to do this. I told myself that in order to see results, I had to put 100 percent into my work. Pretty soon, three months of freelancing turned into six months, that then turned into flowing jobs, but it was all worth it."

So great, right? Plus: Here's a bonus tip about blowouts! (She gave me a SUPER-STRAIGHT one): 

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Embrace your natural curls, but if you want to wear your hair straight, don't OD on product.

"I like your curls. I think embracing your natural curls is a great thing for you, but if you want to wear it straight, I’d recommend using a little bit of product. While we were testing out products [for Motions], I recommended that because when you have girls with mixed hair, they tend to have characteristics of a Caucasian person, which means the hair gets oily fast. 

"You could definitely use leave-in conditioner on your curls because it’ll give you manageability and softness, but when you do it straight, use even less product."

For a girl who hasn’t straightened her hair in four months, I must say that the products she used--Motions Heat Styled Straight Finish Cleanser, Motions Heat Styled Straight Finish Leave-In Conditioner and Motions Heat Styled Straight Finish Sealer from the brand's new Heat Styled line--left my hair feeling (and looking) crazy-smooth.

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What’s the best career, or life, advice anyone has given you? Are you willing to fearlessly pursue your dream job? Share your dream jobs stories with us!